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The Game Master's Bookshelf


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Gaming books are just like any other book - they have word count targets as well as page count targets and the people who write them tend to go over their allotment. This requires an editor to trim the fat. Unfortunately one of the first things to go under the knife in a core book is the game master advice portion of the book. As anyone that's read more than a few tabletop RPG books has noticed, there is always some system specific advice, but the general advice seems to be the same basic ideas, maybe presented slightly differently, but repeated over and over across the industry.
 
Fortunately over the last couple of decades more and more books geared specifically for game masters have been published. For those GMs that want to up their game, whether it be plot, combat, handling NPCs, worldbuilding, or problem players there's advice out there for that. Not all of them give good advice and not all are worth picking up. This thread aims to be a resource, not just creating a list of books but also giving a bit of a review.
 
The books listed here will not include core books unless someone finds one with unique advice. At this point my idea is to keep the list more general and avoid books that are majority system specific.  You won't find the DMG listed here, but you might find a DMG II. After all, that's where the advice that got cut out of the first one ends up.
 
Title: Cityscape
Authors: Ari Marmell & C.A. Suleiman
System: 3.5E d20 (w/ a lot of more generally applicable sections)
Publisher: WOTC (2006)
ISBN: 978-0-7869-3939-8
In Print: No
 

 

WOTC published an entire series of “environment†books for 3E, but my memory of them is that they were very heavy on 3E bits. Except that is for Cityscape, which is why I've added it to the list. Cityscape wants to help you build a city, but not just one kind of city. It has advice for all sorts of cities, from military to trade, big to small. It details districts that you may or may not want to include and then moves on into politics. The Events chapter is probably the least useful one to those not playing 3E as it is very system based. Finally, the book concludes with a chapter on how to run the city.
 
Overall I think that this book as some useful bits for anyone thinking about building a city. On one hand it contains information that anyone who's studied civics and history kind of already knows, but it presents that information in such a way as to make it useful for gaming. That said, it is also incomplete. There are even more things that you can do with a city than this book can cover, so if you are really into urban adventuring I suspect you will want to go beyond this book.



Title: GM Essentials Book 1: NPC Essentials
Authors: Johnn Four
System: Nominally 3.5E d20, but only one chapter is really tied to that system (a mini-adventure)
Publisher: RPGObjects (2003)
ISBN: 978-0-7869-3939-8
In Print: No (?) Might be available electronically from Role Playing Tips (Johnn's Blog)
 

 

[Doug Sundseth]
Compilation of tips from Johnn Four's Role Playing Tips blog (not linked for possible commerce site, but findable easily enough). Very strong advice for creating and running interesting NPCs plus tables of random traits,names backgrounds, etc. Also has a mini-adventure for 3.5 that shows something of how you might use the suggestions in an actual game. Worthwhile to look for this one, I think. There are at least two other GM Essentials books out there as well, but I haven't tried either, so I mention them mostly for completeness. I'll also note that the blog from which this book arose is very interesting to read.


 
Title: Hamlet's Hit Points
Author: Robin D. Laws
System: None
Publisher: Gameplaywright (2010)
ISBN: 978-0-9818840-2-8
In Print: Yes
 

 

Those of us that are of a certain age remember the discussion of story in English lit class where the story opens, it rises to the climax, and then dips down to the resolution. The problem is, this isn't how fiction actually works. Stories go up, down, and sideways. They play with emotions good and bad.  A number of years ago Robin was approached by a publisher to write a gaming book that broke down story and applied it to gaming. He said sure, thinking it would never sell but at least it was a paycheck. Sometimes even Robin is wrong.
 
Hamlet's Hit Points uses a “beat analysis†to break down how stories work and then attempts to apply that to gaming. It uses three classic tales and analyzes them using his beat system to illustrate how good narrative works. So should you pick up this book? First you have to answer a question. Did you like lit class? If you didn't then you're probably not going to like this book. If you did then you should at least find this book an interesting read. How directly you can apply it to your game will depend on your style and how willing you are to analyze your own game. It's not a method that you can just go out and make use of the first game session, but something that will take practice.


Title: Heroes of Battle

Author: David Noonan, Will McDermott, Stephen Schubert

System: 3E (but applicable to other systems)

Publisher: WOTC (2005)

ISBN: 0-7869-3686-X

In Print: No


 

Spoiler

 

[The Auld Grump]

They have a system for PCs influencing battles, and not just as Second Spearman on the Left - instead, the PCs going and doing heroic deeds that turn the battle.

 

They won't be the ones in the ranks, they will be the folks that silence the catapults so that the army can cross the bridge.

 

They will be the ones that sneak into the castle to raise the portcullis.

 

They will be the ones climbing the cliffs to bring them down, blocking the pass.

 

I can honestly say that the book changed the way I run some of my games.

 

And that system is pretty much usable with any game, not just D&D or Pathfinder.

 


Title: Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding
Author: Wolfgang Bauer, Michael Stackpole, Keith Baker, Monte Cook, and others
System: None (fantasy-oriented)
Publisher: Kobold Press (2012)
ISBN: 978-1936781119
In Print: Yes
 

 

[Vil-hatarn]
The only one I've read which directly pertains to this topic is the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding, a $20 paperback from Kobold Press. Its target audience is the GM creating entire worlds or regions from scratch, to whom it offers essays on a variety of topics such as believable geography, top-down vs. bottom-up approaches, incorporating religion and magic, and setting up conflicts. It is worth noting that it does NOT offer random generation tables or other tools of that sort; it instead focuses on fundamental advice which it leaves the reader to implement. Absolutely worth the cost if that's what you're looking for.

 

 

Title: A Mighty Fortress

Author:

System: 2E d20 (but it is also a historical reference)

Publisher: TSR (1992)

ISBN: 1-56076-372-8

In Print: No, but .pdf

 

 

 

“A mighty fortress is our God...†Martin Luther

 

A Mighty Fortress is a historical reference / campaign sourcebook for the years 1550-1650. It was the age after the fall of the old feudal system, when kings and queens consolidated their power, and religious wars raged across Europe. The New World had been discovered and sea routes opened to the spice islands. Piracy flourished and wealth from around the world flowed into Europe.

 

Most of this book is focused on historical reference. Chapter 1 provides the general background of the era, including a giant timeline while chapter 2 focuses on daily life. Chapter 3 is 2E character material, updating or creating kits appropriate for the era. It does contain some more general ideas on the use of honor and social standing. Chapter 4 examines the military, both in general and with 2E stats. Chapter 5 examines four wars that occurred, back in historical reference mode, while Chapter 6 gives you one entire page on the new world. Then its on to Chapter 7. This chapter is an overview of the folklore of the era and D&D equivalents you could use in your game. The final chapter provides a few simple scenarios that fit the setting.

 

 

Title: Play Dirty
Author: John Wick
System: None
Publisher: John Wick (2015)
ISBN: 978-0990547853
In Print: Yes
 

 

[bonwirn]
Great examples of how to develop the "hook" that keeps your players wanting more... Revised from earlier work.  The first book, Play Dirty, started out as a series of magazine articles which were then cobbled together with a few original pieces and published as a book. Most people think these are "how to kill your party" ideas, but if uses properly, create a memorable game play experience.



Title: Play Dirty 2
Author: John Wick
System: None
Publisher: John Wick (2015)
ISBN: 978-0990547860
In Print: Yes
 

 

[bonwirn]
Yet another book with even more examples on how to kill your party and have them enjoy it!


 
Title: Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering
Author: Robin D. Laws
System: None
Publisher: Steve Jackson Games (2002)
ISBN: 1-55634-629-8
In Print: Not last I checked, but you can track down a .pdf
 

 

Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering is not a book intended for the true novice; it assumes you have a few games under your belt before reading. It is also unlikely to be useful to an advanced GM as they will already have a good handle on the topics discussed. If you find yourself somewhere between these two extremes you may find something useful. The ideas presented are not system specific and can apply to d6, d10, d20 or whatever you happen to play.
 
The book opens with a discussion of players and some categories they probably fall into (this concept has since been expanded upon – see the 4E DMG II, above, which Robin contributed to). It then gives advice on how to pick a system, assuming you want to try something different, before moving on to campaign and adventure options. The last third of the book focuses on GMing advice, such as how to be spontaneous, set the mood, and improvise.
 
IMO, if you are fairly new to the GM's chair this is a good book to read. Clocking in at a mere 33 pages it is something you can read of a morning and then spend the rest of the day digesting.

 

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Reserved in case there is a low character limit on posts. While I have your attention though, this is not a me thread. It is an everyone thread, so if you have some books you would like to see included feel free to post them and I'll add them to the list. I have some more to add, but if you beat me to it it'll save me some typing. :D

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Added Hamlet's Hit Points, another book by Robin.
 
I've also been taking a look at some of the older stuff I've picked up over the years. The problem is that the 2E stuff is so old that I don't really remember it. If anyone has read these books more recently than I (i.e. since the '90s) feel free to make your opinions known. If not I'll try to get around to rereading them at some point. It's possible that these are actually too system specific, but just glancing at them they seem to have the potential for inclusion
 
Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide
The Castle Guide
Creative Campaigning
The Complete Book of Villains
A Mighty Fortress
The Crusades
Den of Thieves
World Builder's Guidebook
Dungeon Builder's Guidebook

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Title: GM Essentials Book 1: NPC Essentials

Authors: Johnn Four

System: Nominally 3.5E d20, but only one chapter is really tied to that system (a mini-adventure)

Publisher: RPGObjects (2003)

ISBN: 978-0-7869-3939-8

In Print: No (?) Might be available electronically from Role Playing Tips (Johnn's Blog)

 

 

 

Compilation of tips from Johnn Four's Role Playing Tips blog (not linked for possible commerce site, but findable easily enough). Very strong advice for creating and running interesting NPCs plus tables of random traits,names backgrounds, etc. Also has a mini-adventure for 3.5 that shows something of how you might use the suggestions in an actual game. Worthwhile to look for this one, I think. There are at least two other GM Essentials books out there as well, but I haven't tried either, so I mention them mostly for completeness. I'll also note that the blog from which this book arose is very interesting to read.

 

 

Edited by Doug Sundseth
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I can't say for certain since I've never read any of them, but I've always heard that the old D&D 2e green books and blue books are some of the best material for a DM looking to add flavor and style to a game. The green books were about doing stuff like setting your game in the Viking era, the Crusades, or during the Roman Empire, and from what I've been led to believe they're actually fairly well researched for the time that they were made and for game idea material. The blue books are books meant specifically to help the DM create an engaging game, with titles like Campaign Cartographer, Creative Campaigning, and The Villain's Handbook.

 

All of which I'm told was easily meshed together so that you could build a functional world where all of those things were found in tandem as their own kingdoms or whatever, complete with guiding you through mapping the world in a semi-realistic manner and creating villains that were more than just "I'm evil so I'm going to take over the world!"

 

I'd certainly hope someone here has actually read some of them and could chime in, because I'd love to get a more in depth take on them.

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The first book, Play Dirty, started out as a series of magazine articles which were then cobbled together with a few original pieces and published as a book. Most people think these are "how to kill your party" ideas, but if uses properly, create a memorable game play experience.

 

Title: Play Dirty

Author: John Wick

System: None

Publisher: John Wick (2015)

ISBN: No Clue... I have the PDF version

In Print: Yes

 

Great examples of how to develop the "hook" that keeps your players wanting more... Revised from earlier work

 

Title: Play Dirty 2

Author: John Wick

System: None

Publisher: John Wick (2015)

ISBN: No Clue... I have the PDF version

In Print: Yes

 

Yet another book with even more examples on how to kill your party and have them enjoy it!

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A set of recommendations, all by Engine Publishing and available in either digital or hard copy (and hard copies come with free digital.)

 

~Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Session Prep - Phil Vecchione

~Odyssey: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Campaign Mnagement - Phil Vecchione and Walt Ciechanowski

~Focal Point: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Running Extraordinary Sessions - Phil Vecchione, Walt Ciechanowski, and John Arcadian

 

They work best in that order if you're going to use all of them, but they're all standalone.  And by the same publisher:

 

~Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters - this one is an anthology, including content from Robin Laws.
 

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The first book, Play Dirty, started out as a series of magazine articles which were then cobbled together with a few original pieces and published as a book. Most people think these are "how to kill your party" ideas, but if uses properly, create a memorable game play experience.

 

Title: Play Dirty

Author: John Wick

System: None

Publisher: John Wick (2015)

ISBN: No Clue... I have the PDF version

In Print: Yes

 

Great examples of how to develop the "hook" that keeps your players wanting more... Revised from earlier work

 

Title: Play Dirty 2

Author: John Wick

System: None

Publisher: John Wick (2015)

ISBN: No Clue... I have the PDF version

In Print: Yes

 

Yet another book with even more examples on how to kill your party and have them enjoy it!

Thanks, added to the first post.  If you feel like expanding on these at a later date I can update the description.  FYI, if you can find the book listed on Amazon it will have the ISBN as part of its info list.  ::):

 

Probably worth adding the various Kobold Guides To..., some great advice and essays on topics like developing a game world from scratch.

I found the Paizo's Pathinfinder books Ultimate Campaign and/or Game Mastery Guide to have some good multi-system material, even if the focus is on their own system.

A set of recommendations, all by Engine Publishing and available in either digital or hard copy (and hard copies come with free digital.)

 

~Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Session Prep - Phil Vecchione

~Odyssey: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Campaign Mnagement - Phil Vecchione and Walt Ciechanowski

~Focal Point: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Running Extraordinary Sessions - Phil Vecchione, Walt Ciechanowski, and John Arcadian

 

They work best in that order if you're going to use all of them, but they're all standalone.  And by the same publisher:

 

~Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters - this one is an anthology, including content from Robin Laws.

OK guys and gals, I do appreciate the enthusiasm. However, the idea here is to tell a GM that may be in the market for a new book A) what the book is about & B) if it is worth spending their hard earned money on. I can't added A&B to the first posts for books that I haven't read, so I'm going to need your help here for the books you've listed.  I'm sure future visitors to this thread will appreciate your effort.  ::):

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Apologies for my earlier brevity, I was posting from mobile. The only one I've read which directly pertains to this topic is the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding, a $20 paperback from Kobold Press. Its target audience is the GM creating entire worlds or regions from scratch, to whom it offers essays on a variety of topics such as believable geography, top-down vs. bottom-up approaches, incorporating religion and magic, and setting up conflicts. It is worth noting that it does NOT offer random generation tables or other tools of that sort; it instead focuses on fundamental advice which it leaves the reader to implement. Absolutely worth the cost if that's what you're looking for.

 

Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding

Author: Wolfgang Bauer, Michael Stackpole, Keith Baker, Monte Cook, and others

System: None (fantasy-oriented)

Publisher: Kobold Press (2012)

ISBN: 978-1936781119

In Print: Yes

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Apologies for my earlier brevity, I was posting from mobile.

 

Not a problem; I wouldn't want to make a long post from anything without a keyboard.  Just to be clear, I'm not trying to single out anyone that posted earlier.  My goal here is to make this list as useful as possible, and for that I need everyone that wants to participate to come up with at least a few sentences to get their perspective across. 

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